With a film like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, whose viral marketing campaign has been bombarding us with with trailers and ads in the past months, it can prove difficult to remove oneself from the hype and stand objectively before the finished product. The main problem with Prometheus, however, is not that it fails to live up the hype, but rather that it fails at being much of a good film in any context.
Like many films, good and bad, this one starts out intriguingly and with promise. An old cave is unearthed in Scotland, and mysterious ancient drawings are discovered on the walls, which seem to point to a particular configuration of stars and planets. The pattern matches several others that were found around the world from many different eras and civilizations. Flash forward a few years (to 2093), to a space vessel far from earth. On board are the archaeologist couple who discovered the cave, the mission supervisor (Charlize Theron), and other assorted crew members, biologists and the like. They awaken from their two-year long hibernation, and sit down for the familiar mission brief scene: they are heading for the satellite moon of one of the planets, which could allegedly be home to some kind of life form.
We are treated to the standard conflict of interests: Theron’s icy character only wants to complete a strict observation mission. The archeologists, especially the woman (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), have more of a philosophical purpose, to meet their Creator. Indeed, the twist is that these aliens may in fact have played a part in the creation of humans on earth. The shady old commandeer of the operation has an even more specific goal. Also on board the ship is David (Michael Fassbender), an android perfectly human in appearance and speech. His own creation by humans offers an intriguing parallel to the mission’s search. There’s also something a little creepy about him, as if we didn’t already know that artificial intelligence and space don’t mix too well.
Sounds pretty exciting right? In another film, this setup could have led to a really interesting and awesome story. Unfortunately here, these ideas never become more than just a premise, and are slowly but surely squandered once the search in dark caverns begins, and the screenplay becomes steadily more incoherent and gratuitous. The crew discovers the skeletal remains of an extinct civilization – or so they think. There are also mysterious alien pods, one of which is sneakily infiltrated back inside the spacecraft. I’d rather not give anything more away at this point, not that there is that much to reveal.
Yes, we fully expect scary creatures to appear and wreak havoc (and they do), but what is surprising is the lack of anything fresh and original, despite what the movie initially seems to promise. We keep hoping for something more, as we realize with a sinking feeling that we won’t be rewarded. The questions that are raised at the start end up feeling like just an excuse to rehash old material, and bring nothing to the film except default violence and mayhem, at the expense of logic and clear storytelling. What’s the point? Is it that our gods have abandoned us, that where we seek understanding we will meet destruction? No, attributing such grand statements to the film would be too much praise. I’m afraid the truth is that it isn’t saying anything much.
There is some stark imagery, and one particularly visceral scene involving an operating table, which should satisfy the die-hard fans of that kind of stuff.
The actors are competent, and Fassbender does an especially good job at keeping an emotionless expression that makes us a little uneasy. But when he starts to turn on his makers, it feels more like a requirement of the mechanical plot than anything else. Theron plays her one-note character with little expressiveness – but then again she might be a robot too. And Noomi Rapace plays the Strong Female Lead who can apparently take anything and keep running. You get the idea.
From the start of the movie, with the signs in the caves, and of course David, there are echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, already setting the stage for disappointment. The entire film of course, is a shadow of a much better one by Ridley Scott, Alien. That one was also about a spaceship plagued by an unwelcome visitor from the beyond. Except that film had suspense and tension, and felt exciting instead of flat. So much for all the talk about whether this was meant to be a prequel or not.
It’s almost as if two films were fighting each other in Prometheus. One is an ambitious science-fiction tale with impressive philosophical and large-scale themes, and the other is a schlocky monsters-in-space movie that has to bring in the goods, or else. Much like the creatures on display, one of those films takes control of the other, and eats it from the inside out.
Review By Michael Berlind